Image of Digidog, created by Boston Dynamics

Robot dog joins New York police force

Image credit: NYC’s Mayor Office

The New York Police Department (NYPD) is deploying three new high-tech policing devices, including a controversial remote-controlled robot.

New York Mayor Eric Adams and NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell have unveiled three new innovative devices that will aim to increase security in the city's streets. 

The most controversial of the three is known as Digidog or Spot. The four-legged K-9 robot has been designed by Boston Dynamics to be deployed in scenarios considered too dangerous for humans such as construction sites or counterterrorism incidents. 

“If you have a barricaded suspect, if you have someone that’s inside a building that is armed, instead of sending police in there, you send Digidog in there,” Adams said. “So these are smart ways of using good technologies.”

In addition to Digidog, NYPD will trial two other technologies: StarChase and a K-5 autonomous security robot (ASR). The former is a projectile that can attach a GPS-enable device to a car, allowing police forces to track vehicles remotely. 

StarChase is intended to be used to locate ghost cars, cars with stolen plates used to commit other crimes, mitigate vehicle pursuits and keep the public and officers safe.

"This is a game changer," the NYPD said.

Meanwhile, ASR is an automated robot able to conduct patrols and provide incident notification in real-time to first responders in busy areas such as Times Square or a subway station.

"To safeguard our modern city in a forward-looking world, it is essential that out officers are equipped with the tools, training and technology necessary to do that job safely and effectively," Sewell said. "Throughout its history our department has leveraged the latest available technology and pioneered ways to do our work."

Although officials have celebrated NYPD's use of innovative technologies, some members of the public have raised concerns over the new devices. 

In particular, Digidog faced significant criticism when it was first announced in 2020, as reported by The New York Times. At the time, criticism deemed it "creepy" and "dystopian", and similar comments have been made in the wake of the mayor's announcement.

“This latest announcement is just the most recent example of how Mayor Adams allows unmitigated overspending of the NYPD’s massively bloated budget,” said Ileana Mendez-Penate, programme director of Communities United for Police Reform.

“The NYPD is buying robot dogs and other fancy tech while New Yorkers can’t access food stamps because city agencies are short-staffed, and New Yorkers are getting evicted because they can’t access their right to counsel." 

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said: “The NYPD is turning bad science fiction into terrible policing. New York deserves real safety, not a knock-off RoboCop.”

The Legal Aid Society also released a statement criticising the "new dystopian technologies to surveil New Yorkers."

“This announcement is also another example of the NYPD’s violation of basic norms of transparency and accountability by rolling out these technologies without providing the public a meaningful opportunity to raise concerns," the statement said. 

However, the New York authorities have decided to continue with the programme and not bow down to the pressure. 

“I believe that technology is here; we cannot be afraid of it,” Adams said. “A few loud people were opposed to it, and we took a step back — that is not how I operate. I operate on looking at what’s best for the city.”

Sewell further stressed that "the use of this technology will be transparent, consistent and always done in collaboration with the people who we serve."

While Digidog is now considered a permanent member of NYPD, the other two devices will undergo a pilot programme to assess their functionality. During this period, ASR will be accompanied by a human partner, the police department has said. 

City officials have added that Digidog robots will only be used during life-threatening situations, such as bomb threats.

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